I recently read the wildly entertaining book, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It’s a fiction book, but semi-autobiographical, based upon some of Roberts’ real life experiences as a fugitive from an Australian prison who flees to Bombay and has a wide range of experiences there including living in a slum, joining the Indian mafia, fighting in Afghanistan against the Russians, and acting in Bollywood movies.
In one passage in the book, he writes about the Indian gesture, the head-wiggle (also commonly called the head bobble).
“No discovery pleased me more, on that first excursion from the city, than the full translation of the famous Indian head-wiggle. The weeks I’d spent in Bombay with Prabaker had taught me that the shaking or wiggling of the head from side to side– that most characteristic of Indian expressive gestures– was the equivalent of a forward nod of the head, meaning Yes. I’d also discerned the subtler senses of I agree with you, and Yes, I would like that. What I learned, on the train, was that a universal message attached to the gesture, when it was a used as a greeting, which made it uniquely useful.
Most of those who entered the open carriagae greeted the other seated or standing men with a little wiggle of the head. The gesture always drew a reciprocal wag of the head from at least one, and sometimes several of the passengers. I watched it happen at station after station, knowing that the newcomers couldn’t be indicating Yes, or I agree with you with the head-wiggle because nothing had been said, and there was no exchange other than the gesture itself. Gradually, I realised that the wiggle of the head was a signal to others that carried an amiable and disarming message: I’m a peaceful man, I don’t mean any harm.
Moved by admiration and no small envy for the marvellous gesture, I resolved to try it myself. The train stopped at a small rural station. A stranger joined our group in the carriage. When our eyes met for the first time, I gave the little wiggle of my head, and a smile. The result was astounding. The man beamed a smile at me so huge that it was half the brilliance of Prabaker’s own, and set to such energetic head waggling in return that I was, at first, a little alarmed. By journey’s end, however, I’d had enough practice to perform the movement as casually as others in the carriage did, and to convey the gentle message of the gesture. It was the first truly Indian expression my body learned, and it was the beginning of a transformation that has ruled my life, in all the long years since that journey of crowded hearts.”
I really never proactively thought about the head wiggle and have never discussed it with any Indian in my life, but I know that I’ve been doing the head wiggle most of my life as well. Just something you pick up being around your parents, relatives, and other Indians.
I had my own memorable head-wiggle experience this trip to India. I was traveling in Kerala and staying at a hotel near Kovalum beach which had a variety of guests from Europe, the US, Japan, as well as domestic Indians and non-resident Indians from abroad.
The hotel had nice gardens and greenery with many gardeners and laborers working there. For the tourists sake I’m sure, they had the gardeners wearing traditional Keralan outfits. One such gardener was an older gentleman, with complete white hair and stubble and khaki turban, who looked to be a bit worn down from the manual work of maintaining the vast grounds. I was following some Europeans and Indians who walked past him one morning; one group said hello, but the gardener didn’t respond verbally or with any gesture, still looking worn down and defeated. I then passed him and didn’t verbally say anything but I unconsciously did the head-wiggle. This man then beamed a wide, wide smile at me, gapped tooth and all. I wish I had a camera with me because the image of this older man, wearing traditional clothing, with a beaming smile would have been a perfect picture to complement other pictures I was taking of the scenes of India during my trip.
But I was wondering afterwards why did he offer such a large smile to me but not to the others. It then dawned on me that I gave the head-wiggle— the power of the head-wiggle.
Update- October 28, 2010: I was invited to the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s (CBC) program Definitely not the Opera (DNTO) to share my head wiggle story. You can listen to the podcast here (forward to approximately the 51st minute to hear my section). I wrote more about my radio experience in this post.